The gallery in the white neo-classical Glen Eira Town Hall in Caulfield, constructed in 1885, is occupied with an art exhibition by Indigenous people who have been incarcerated in Victoria. I wondered if this symbol of colonial imperialism is appropriate. Maybe it needs to be occupied.
Seeing The Torch’s annual exhibition, “Confined”, I go through similar emotions. A rush as I see, hung from floor to ceiling, hundreds of paintings filling the visual field, 400 artworks from 350 artists. Powerful images of Indigenous culture mixed with less successful work give a mix of highs and lows. The quantity of art is variable. For some, this is their first exhibition; others are regular exhibitors. Each painting tells its own story, but all of the artists have been in prison, which is tragic. The over-representation of Indigenous people in jail is evident in the scale of the exhibition. Then I think of the recidivism rate, with only 11% of those who go through the Torch’s program returning to prison compared with the average Indigenous recidivism rate of 53.4%, which gives hope.
“Because of culture, I believe in myself now and have found who I really am.” – Ash Thomas (Yorta Yorta/Wiradjuri people) Precisely what culture should do. I would prefer that Indigenous people be paid a living wage to connect to their culture instead of doing that in prison.
People want many things from art, and while it was good seeing some new work by artists that I’ve written about in the past. As a writer, I want art to be a story that takes the viewer to current events or a new view of history. We love it when an artist references art or history and doubly so when the two are combined because it gives us more to write about. So for me, two works stood out from the mass of paintings at “Confined 13” in the Glen Eira City Council Gallery. (Full disclosure; I bought two paintings through The Torch a couple of years ago, and one of them is on the wall behind me.)
Big Dom’s (Gunaikurnai) Koorie Old Style Boxing has a different view of history that I hadn’t seen before. Black figures on a terracotta pot refer to similar images on ancient Greek pottery. I wanted to see more and could imagine vases with other Indigenous athletes depicted. Koorie Old Style Boxing takes the viewer to two. Ancient Greece and the history of Indigenous boxing in the twentieth century when in Big Dom’s words, “they used to travel around doing old style tent boxing to make some money to feed their family and keep fit.”
Deaths in Custody by C. Harrison (Yorta Yorta) is an all too current event, and it is something that the whole of Australia needs to address. Root and branch reforms of the custodial system need to take place. As Harrison points out, “Aboriginal people are 7 x more likely to die in custody than Australian defence personnel in war.” The calmly ordered rows of bodies on a red ocher background. There are forty-four figures in each row by ten columns. Each one painted by hand, an act that does not reduce them to statistics and symbols. The artist is aware that each represents a person who died in custody between 1991 to 2021 and whose family and friends still grieve (the number has gone up since painting).